27 August 2015

More Arthurian Enchantments!

Once and Future Arthurian Enchantments!
By Kristin Battestella

Let's get our early medieval old speaketh education on with this chivalrous list of family friendly and Arthurian-centric documentaries.

The Arthurian Legends: The Legend of King Arthur – This 50 minute documentary from 2006 is the first in this series from Kultur and spends its time focusing on the historical and fanciful merging of the Arthur mythos. Interviews with scholarly experts and modern medievalists debate Arthur as a hero modeled to fit his time and place and how the legend has traveled across cultures and through the centuries. Balanced point/counterpoint theories break up the expected man versus myth monotony, and the time is divided into themed segments such as the Malory Arthurian era, Arthur’s genesis with the Sword in the Stone, Excalibur, and the Geoffrey of Monmouth writings. Everything from early Ecclesiastic evidence and Roman influence on the legend to Sarmatian possibilities, dragon motifs, and Christian iconography is discussed here. Granted, the standard Camelot summary and knightly re-enactments are here, too. However, Stonehenge scenery and lovely artwork contribute to the well edited pacing. This won't be anything new to the well read Arthur enthusiast, my rental disc skipped, and there are no subtitles which might hinder an otherwise fine classroom viewing. Some may also find the presentation too dated or British, but considering the subject, what did you expect? This one is just the right length and none too high brow for a youthful medieval fan. 


The Arthurian Legends: Camelot This second documentary hour focuses on the would be seat of King Arthur. Was there really such a place as Camelot? How do you research a city that seemingly did not exist? Name corruptions from Chretien de Troyes, Roman ties, and several historical locales with similar monikers are discussed as numerous places on the UK map have their eponymous case made known. Mobile forces, original wooden hill forts developing into later medieval stone castles, and real world locations such as Tintagel debate how Arthur has gradually changed from a Welsh warlord who needed no hall to a king with a supposedly most chivalrous court. By chapters, scholars recount evidence for Camelot, writings after the fact from 15th century Malory and later Tennyson in the Victorian era, and the symbolic haven of peace and justice Camelot brought for peoples living in a darker time. From the Round Table hanging at Winchester Castle and fair government ideology to underlying Christian themes on inherent goodness meeting innate corruption, the narration becomes a bit too lofty at times – whimsical but also bemoaning on the impossibility of a finite Camelot answer. The accented, fast talking experts also become redundant while tossing around confusing ye olde names and waxing on the allure of a lost city mixing magic and idyllic possibilities gone awry. Fortunately, great scenery and locations with Cadbury excavations, Viroconium ruins, and research on actual 5th century construction make up any difference for today's knightly loving teens.

The Arthurian Legends: Merlin – The final leg in the Arthurian Legend series focuses on those separately inseparable aspects between the eponymous wizard and King Arthur. Did this wild man of the woods even meet Arthur or are their sources too far apart? From Merlin's natural, pagan origins and his mysterious conception to his legendary erection of Stonehenge and his blending into Christianity and other native religions, the segments here break down Geoffrey of Monmouth's information alongside other early or obscure sources. Factual or mythical basis for the possibility of more than one Merlin is debated alongside Welsh terminology versus Celtic lore and evidence for the existence of a real 6th century man who has been described as a part demon magician and a warrior poet. Name changes – even jokes about the potential for a “shitty” Latin translation snafu – and prophecies attributed to Merlin’s name help paint the backdrop for Roman and Saxon strife, Druid teachings, and pagan versus Christian influences. At times the muddled supposition strays to far from the details we know and love, but some of the conjecture from fringe scholars is perhaps fittingly esoteric. Fortunately, there are enough new theories and quality historical scope here to conclude this fun and informative little trilogy. 

Documentary Bonus:

Mystery Files: King Arthur – This 2010 half hour from the Smithsonian Channel series wastes precious minutes and a little too much time on a recap of the well-known legend. It also makes sure it looks right cool with cinematic, digitally graded color, fast, angled photography, and badass re-enactments – young classroom audiences won’t have a tough time watching this! Again, Le Morte d Arthur and Malory are used to frame the presentation, and common topics like chivalrous codes and jousting feel like an unnecessary geek chic lure. However, expert opinions – mostly young, hip scholars, of course – break up the obvious narration on how the 15th century writings have obscured the Dark Ages facts. Understandably, the Ambrosius Aurelianus and Riothamus amalgam conversation is presented as the new, shocking, crux, but it’s all overly generalized and brief by necessity due to the short runtime here. In this era of reality shows on The History Channel and Ancient Aliens on its sister station, however, it’s simply so nice to find quality, educational, and informative content – and the on location Tintagel scenery is lovely! The brevity may bother long time Arthurian aficionados, but this short and sweet is fitting for today’s fantasy tweens with a budding interest in Arthurian fanfare.

24 August 2015

Wallander: Series 3

More Cop Quality in Wallander Series 3
by Kristin Battestella

In 2012 Kenneth Branagh returned to UK television as Hennin Mankell's Swedish detective Wallander for another trio of 90 minute cases mixing personal angst and gritty crimes.

New house, new gal pal – things should be looking up for our eponymous copper in this first episode “An Event in Autumn.” Unfortunately, a labyrinthine Baltic ferry, brisk waves, and a traumatized young stowaway gone overboard bring the wayward Wallander back into the police fold alongside gruesome propeller damage, dockside bleak, and a teddy bear charm bracelet. And did I mention there are few unpleasantries buried right in Kurt's own backyard? A lot has been dumped in Wallander's lap, and some plot ties or closed circuit footage may seem slightly convenient. However escalating circumstances, new victims, pregnancy twists, prowlers at home, and suspicious real estate keep the intrigue moving. Shady families, creepy old men, and prostitution have our detectives breaking the rules yet again – leading to some very upsetting canine scenes, surprising injuries, and bittersweet hospital moments. Questionably obtained evidence, unsure witnesses, and doubtful facts add to the tension while violent car interiors, congested filming, unseen killer perspectives, shadowed photography, and contrasting lighting reflect the sinister at work. Fishy phone calls don't help as the dead bodies mount, but the mix of gray amid this case both criminal and personal layers the well built suspense. Wallander narrows the locations and suspects, creating a history will out and superb, yell at the television drama.

Telemovie two “The Dogs of Riga” picks up where the previous episode leaves off and adds more seagulls, clouded dark skies, and bodies adrift. Wallander still isn't to grips with the ongoing officer recoveries and everything that has happened, but mysterious prison tattoos, Latvian connections, and unforthcoming foreign detectives certainly contribute to his professional and private angst. The nonchalant English mixed with other languages, lingering revolutionary feelings, and more international intrigue may not seem as heavy or as close to home as the previous events. Time transitions from one scene to the next also feel super fast – in less than a week people can travel to the continent and be killed and buried. Thankfully, the pains in Ystad and abroad parallel prior angst as the mystery deepens via sulfuric acid, cocaine heists, dead informants, and solemn funerary. Undercover drug details and suspicious superiors interfere with all the back and forth phone calls, missing faxes, and notes slipped under the door. This loose police work has even Wallander side eyeing his Latvian comrades over rules and regulations! Gangs, journalists, and remnants of KGB espionage simmer as affairs and corruption unravel amid abductions and missing files. The straightforward police stand offs are well filmed, yet hidden in plain sight clues, tender moments, and clever deductions raise the bar.

Before the Frost” begins with beautiful nature and things looking up until disturbing violence, animal abuses, and former friends unable to deal with past traumas shatter all positive strides. Yes, it is again convenient that a childhood friend of Kurt's daughter shows up at his new house out of the blue but with a seemingly related piece of case. However, this familiarity layers more history and clues on the crime while a missing grandmother, maze like trails, and scorched, shallow bodies belie that nuclear safety and the lakeside lovely. Danish suggestions, Biblical evidence, fundamental churches, painful animal traps, and aliases add to the confusion as a shootout siege goes wrong and scarred suspects watch the police mistakes from within the trees. More family surprises and previous relationships elevate the high speed chase through the countryside, and the pursuit is well edited to parallel the dangerous trains and hate crimes. Abortion talk, changing Christian ideologies, and Creationism in schools are big background topics, but the personal struggles and deep conversations anchor the investigation at hand as people are burned alive over differing spiritual thoughts. Tense one on one scenes work well with smartly used video clips, audio calls, and secret bank accounts as cults and following in the family footsteps go to extremes. Amid all the fires, multiple attacks, and warped dangers, Wallander keeps the individual reflections and bittersweet memories at the forefront for a layered finale that is both sweeping with hostage toppers and an intimate denouement.

Wallander producer and star Sir Kenneth Branagh returns as our titular but crusty copper who just can't get his life together. It's so pleasing to see Kurt cleaned up and happy to start this third season. He's well adjusted and centered at home in the beautiful country complete with a family dog. But of course, that immediately recognizable mobile ringtone just won't quit, and if his family couldn't handle the detective life before, why is there reason to think a new one would now? When your cases are so sickening, it's no easier for Wallander to go home at the end of the day even to a happy place – not that he can catch a break when there are literal skeletons buried on his new idyllic property. He may have left drowning himself in the bottle behind, but his work will always find him, causing him to miss his daughter's nuptials and fall asleep in his favorite chair as usual. Kurt has several cute and endearing moments with his dog, for whom he can leave his work at the door and not have to talk about his day. However, this companionship isn't peace enough for him when his recklessness gets a fellow officer hurt and resolving a case will always be more important than calling home. Wallander yells at the perpetrator instead of shouting at himself over his own mistakes, but strives on with his own breaking the rules kind of righteous. Kurt needs the validation of finding himself at the end of the investigation and refuses to believe in coincidence when crime is in play.

Saskia Reeves (Luther) is a little under utilized as Kurt's new girlfriend Vanja Andersson, but she provides the right too good to be true balance against Wallander's prior despairing. Vanja and her blink and you miss him son seem too sweet and innocent – they will not be able to handle Wallander's personal heavy nor the work burdens he places upon himself and thus them. Ironic counseling symmetry accents Wallander's ongoing tug and pull between work steeped in life and death daily. We viewers see the writing on the wall as soon as Kurt thinks something bad is happening to him which Vanja corrects as “us.” She says what we are thinking, whether it's what she wants to hear or not. Lithuanian actress Ingeborga Dapkunaite (Hannibal Rising) as Baiba Liepa adds a new and interesting dynamic for Kurt as well. Here is a former freedom fighter from a rebuilt country who understands how to take the simple day to day moments when you can get them rather than making domestic demands. Will that hopeful stick for Wallander? We shall see. On her game as always, Sarah Smart continues to tread carefully alongside Wallander as the level headed inspector Anne-Britt Hoglund. She's both sensitive to Kurt's new life but has been promoted and is ready to move on herself. Of course, Wallander won't actually say he doesn't want her to transfer, but he makes things right when she sticks with him even at extreme risk to herself. We don't see her as much in this Wallander, but Anne-Britt remains a superb catalyst over these three episodes.

Likewise, Jeany Spark as daughter Linda remains on terse terms with Wallander in Episode Three. There's bitterness over her wedding fallout and she is also trying to move up in the world, but their love for each other ebbs and flows alongside investigations that push them apart or bring them together for some very beautiful moments. Perhaps Wallander is missing Tom Hiddleston this season, but Rebekah Stanton (Raised by Wolves) isn't as dynamic or given enough to do as new paper pushing detective Kristina Albinsson compared to the ornery Magnus Martinsson. However, in a season of strong female characters, she oddly doesn't seem to mind her backseat role and accepts being relatively ignored by Kurt. This season, Wallander is definitely about the man himself rather than any squad room interplay or ensemble uplift. Was Kristina even necessary? Maybe not, but Barnaby Kay (New Tricks) as new boss Lennart Mattson is also lacking compared to prior team leader Sadie Shimmin. He's a yes man in a suit who doesn't appear often much less have time for any good repartee with Wallander and ultimately feels more like a rookie than the authority figure meant to reign in Kurt's wayward. It's horrible to say but Mark Hadfied (Into the Woods) as Stefan Lindeman and the returning Richard McCabe as Sven Nyberg are also treated as interchangeable this season. Both are good with procedure, know how to work the case the right way, and provide steady detective exposition when needed yet I had to double take each time one of them came or went.

Fortunately, the look and feel of Wallander is once again on point with unique Swedish scenery and on location Latvian filming. Assorted European accents and Scandinavian names may be confusing at first, but the vocals add flavor alongside well placed foghorns, phone rings, and gunshots contributing to the sharp editing and suspense. While its not in your face, Wallander provides some surprising violence and shootouts to fit the plot. Harsh outdoors, cold winds, and bitter landscapes provide realism while dark, grimy interiors sell the shady. Older technology, dated cameras, flip phones, and fax machines, help keep the investigations somewhat more downtrodden despite the lovely photography and cinematic design. Compared to the same old downhill Law and Order: Special Victims Unit or the always up intensity of the 24 styled, action oriented detective dramas stateside, I'll take Wallander win win for its intelligent manner and angsty casework. Audiences have to pay attention here, almost becoming interactive as we spot clues alongside the cast, deduce, and gasp over the twists, turns, and outcomes. Rather than dumb down its entertainment, Wallander is a well woven tapestry remaining sophisticated for viewers seeking a more meaty detective drama. 


14 August 2015

More Horror Documentaries Again!

More Horror Documentaries Yet!
By Kristin Battestella

What's the next best thing to watching horror? Watching other people talk about zombies, scary classics, and the history of frightful film!

Birth of the Living Dead – This 2013 frank and colorful conversation with George A. Romero recounts his early start with Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, beer commercials, and stalled productions before establishing the zombie onscreen as we know it today and using horror to make social statements on Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement with Night of the Living Dead. Romero and his associates wore numerous hats for the organic filming and bare minimum $100,000 production, leading to a necessary ingenuity shaping the realistic horror and self aware fears onscreen as they fought against studio demands, difficult cinema distribution, and copyright issues. Contemporary filmmakers and students also provide detailed scene by scene analysis and discuss the groundbreaking racial impacts of the film, early uses of the inaccuracy of television and radio media to parallel 1968 news coverage, and erroneous law enforcement implications of the time – topics still very relevant today. It's interesting to hear how the script did not mention race and went unchanged once Duane Jones was cast in the lead – the focus of the film was primarily a cynical denouement on the large mistakes or small differences that would unravel mid century middle America in the face of unexplained, non-supernatural horror but nonetheless inadvertently addresses racial issues of the era. The villain isn't made clear and no one actually wins, and these frightening concepts influenced numerous political films to come. It's a real treat to have an entire 76 minutes dedicated to discussing Night of the Living Dead, and this documentary is perfect for horror fans or sociology classrooms looking to dissect horror onscreen and off.

Nightmare Factory – John Carpenter, George A. Romero, John Landis, Elijah Wood, Norman Reedus, Tom Savini, Robert Rodriguez, and more discuss the difficulty of makeup designs, prosthetic effects, and bringing scares to life in this 94 minute 2011 special. There are warehouse tours, historical horror props, early talk of Lon Chaney and Jack Pierce, gore in progress limbs, macabre sculptures, and body casts alongside animatronics and puppetry secrets. However, the primary focus here is not on the history of horror effects but rather Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and their KNB Effects company. Primitive childhood films, behind the scenes footage from Day of the Dead to The Walking Dead, and interviews with the Nicotero family help shape the personal rise and artistic camaraderie as the late seventies horror wave brought the effects industry into mainstream films. Remember, in the past it wasn't cool to be into creepy gross stuff like it is now! Of course, Robert Kurtzman – the K in KNB Effects – is only briefly mentioned amid this rock n roll makeup fraternity, and the presentation is uneven, meandering vainly over KNB's monopoly on the effects business and wasting time on funny anecdotes. Though diva aspects, perfectionism, and CGI competition are addressed, these counter topics are too swift and the absence of a narrator to balance the chronology or transition segments further contributes to the seemingly random structure. I might have preferred to see a more linear, practical behind the scenes instead – use this fake blood mix, rubber mask mold that. However, there are some neat insights into the special effects evolution, with debates on the practicality of making one small piece versus an entire monstrosity, what you can do with little money compared to a big budget, and ultimately how tedious a production can truly be. The conversation may be somewhat rocky, but this remains an informative treat for behind the scenes enthusiasts and scary die hards. 


Universal Horror – Kenneth Branagh narrates this 1998 documentary previously available on other Universal DVD videos and now accenting the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection blu-ray set. These 95 minutes are packed with interviews from Ray Bradbury, Gloria Stuart, Fay Wray, Carla Laemmle, Sara Karloff, Forrest J. Ackerman, and yet more actors, actresses, authors, filmmakers, and historians discussing the Hollywood Gothic and European design trends begun by Universal after their early start in silents and westerns before The Hunchback of Notre Dame. From foundings with Carl Laemmle, the famed Stage 28, and The Phantom of the Opera to The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs, and London After Midnight, time here is also well spent on directors Tod Browning and James Whale and their talkie success with Dracula and Frankenstein. Due time focuses on Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff, too, before King King nostalgia, more Depression era horror, and The Black Cat. Yes, this is a lot of stuff to cover, but the orderly progression moves at a nice pace on each leg of the journey thanks to film clips, rare footage and photos, and family anecdotes. Highlights on German Expressionism, earlier silent inspirations, and the beginnings of censorship battles help frame Universal’s place in the budding horror glory, but the time here only covers up to Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man. Intriguing topics such as bankruptcy and the end of the Laemmle era, World War II parallels in horror, the forties second wave of sequels, and Abbott and Costello mash ups are quickly squished in the final fifteen minutes. One could do an entire mini series on the history of this studio, indeed. However, this extended retrospective has more than enough to delight movie history buffs and horror fans old and new.

Skip It

Doc of the Dead – This 80 minute 2014 special tackles the zombie rise on film from the medium's infancy to Romero's work and beyond with spoof newscasts, zombie town hall meetings, film clips from White Zombie to World War Z, and quips from Simon Pegg, Bruce Campbell, and more. Early film racism, voodoo metaphors, biological scares, and science fiction undead mixes create an interesting conversation alongside Black Friday irony, capitalism fears, and social commentary. Retrospective sit downs discuss how new disasters both natural and manmade have created a millennial zombie resurgence with video games and all things The Walking Dead. Unfortunately, many zombie films go unmentioned in favor of more pop than cinema. Real life voodoo practitioners and global undead history are pushed aside in favor of a lengthy fast versus slow zombie debate. Obvious metaphors are nothing new to hardcore fans, and the 98% white male experts end up repeating the same pretentious things. The ironic hipster tunes and geek humor is a bit much, too – on the street funny people and music montages are unnecessary and off the mark. Scientific perspectives are dropped in favor of zombie commercials, zombie weddings, and kid zombie movies followed by onscreen experts saying we haven't jumped the zombie shark just yet. This counter productive approach at once tells us how mainstream zombies have become whilst also presenting bizarre aspects such as undead rape fantasy and zombie porn – which of course is where the few female commentators get to look foolish. Time is padded with double talk on why zombies are so big but how such popularity is baffling, and panelists say they would leave their kids behind and jump off buildings in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Ultimately, this embracing fandom hug feels more like a cultural mockery complete with homophobic comedy, and I stopped caring before the last forty minutes.

07 August 2015

Slow West

Slow West a Terse Little Debut Western
by Kristin Battestella

I finally got to see the 2015 full length directorial debut Slow West, and despite a few structural hiccups, this picture delivers a visually stunning and ironic tale befitting of its titular genre.

It's 1870 and young noble Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels to Colorado to find his sweetheart Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius). After a confrontation turned deadly, Rose and her father John (Rory McCann) have fled from Scotland. Wanted for murder, the Ross family has a price on its head, attracting numerous bounty hunters across the dangerous frontier territory. Loner Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) helps Jay in his quest, but unfortunately, the outlaw Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) pursues them in hopes that Jay will lead his gang to their $2,000 quarry.

I've been impressed with writer and director John Maclean's award winning short film Pitch Black Heist as well as the notion of his Man on a Motorcycle being filmed entirely with camera phones. Not only are westerns few and far between this century, but it's also intriguing to see British, Scottish, and Irish influences upon something as quintessentially American as the Old West – and Slow West was filmed in New Zealand! The opening narration establishes the harsh frontier circumstances with no frills sentences, and gunshots, burned villages, chased savages, and cavalry deserters further set the unforgiving mood. Everyone is suspicious of everybody, desperate immigrants don't know what they are doing, and each situation in Slow West becomes more drastic and deadly. Additional voiceovers from Silas, however, feel obvious or unnecessary – a head hopping interference whilst we're also in Jay's memories with disjointed, intercut flashbacks. Instead of distracting from the past and present, the seemingly happy recollections and reasons for fleeing Scotland should have come in one early sequence to bookend with the superb shootout finale and concluding narration. The audience realizes Jay's history is blurred with young love and his future hopes are clouded over Rose, who is the cause of his journey. So either Maclean unnecessarily underestimates his story or a Hollywood fuddy duddy ordered the plot be spelled out for the usually spoon fed American audience. In fact, we don't need to see Jay's previous infatuation with Rose at all; his maturing adventure with Silas is more dynamic and the dream sequence halfway through Slow West better encapsulates his fears via prophetic foreshadowing and several symbolic pieces. Everything that is going to happen in Slow West is alluded to somewhere in the film, and this is a very pleasing layer for the viewer to digest as we observe the players themselves realizing what's in store. Maybe the dry humor will be off for some, but Slow West is a sardonic, modern piece wrapped in traditional western motifs. Bounty hunter codes, honor, and rivalry are critiqued alongside veiled statements regarding how a native population will be obliterated if only to think fondly of them and be nostalgic about it later. With these numerous character commentaries, it's surprising Slow West is so short at under an hour and a half. However, the picture progresses as necessary with well paced reflection and quiet conversation balanced within the forward moving journey and ultimate siege action.

Now also of X-men: Apocalypse alongside fellow mutant Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee is perfect as the young Scottish noble Jay Cavendish. He's gotten this far, but is also traveling heavy, totally lost, and in need of help but not taking any hints. The teapot tossed from the suitcase and his erroneous clinging to a guide book reveal how in over his head Jay really is – religious education and progressive Darwin won't help him here. Jay looks to the stars for his map and his dreams, and though cute and innocent in his believing of a railroad to the moon and meeting moon people, that idyllic thinking proves a detriment. More than once Jay's trusting nature gets the better of him in Slow West – he sees the trip as an adventure full of interesting characters despite gross circumstances, theft consequences, and an inability to help amid the desperation. He kills surprisingly quickly if he's killing for Rose and proves some ingenuity on the way, deducing Silas' bounty intentions even while claiming Silas is lonely brute looking for more than survival. There are plot holes, however, that compromise the character and rightly or wrongly create questions in Slow West. How did Jay know where to find Rose if the expert bounty hunters familiar with the area couldn't? If she was so easy to find, why did it take everyone so long to do so? Once Jay knows he is leading deadly pursuers to her, why does he continue on his way toward Rose? If he is so in love with her and assured of their future together, why is Jay jealous and imagining chemistry between his “friend” Silas and his unbedded Rose before the two have actually met? Is Jay on some subconscious level aware of her platonic feelings, knowing he is not manly or as would be appealing to her as the more rugged Silas? Why doesn't he just shout, “Hi, it's me, Jay!” the way Silas smartly declares himself? How many people end up dead because he is where he doesn't belong? Why is Jay's destiny so entwined with Silas, and who is actually leading whom to Rose and that idyllic, happy family home? Jay is really quite clueless and very stupid in how he causes exactly what he was trying to prevent. Everything in Slow West is actually his fault, and although wise viewers may light bulb his fate right before it happens thanks to some great clues, Jay's literally getting salt in an open wound delusion wonderfully caps off the irony in Slow West.

Since he is also wearing a producer hat for Slow West, I was surprised by how little promotion Michael Fassbender did for this offbeat, independent gem in need of his commercial presence, but he was filming the Steve Jobs biopic while Slow West studded the festival circuit. Fortunately, the Shame star is up to his usual acting chops in front of the camera from a great introduction to his commanding on horseback stature. Silas is a ruthless, rugged drifter who abides by no law and demands cash to help Jay. He doesn't want to hear Jay's story and doesn't actually converse with him much – when Silas speaks, it's clip, effective, and belittling. Not to worry, a few words regarding a mixed Irish and Canadian history explain away Fassbender's accent, and he certainly looks like he could make it out in the wild with his chewed cigar, cowboy hat, and chiseled profile. Despite his harsh distance, Silas develops a unique fondness for Jay, becoming a stern father figure. Again, the voiceover is redundant at times, for the audience sees his cynicism already. The extra words don't shed further light on any internal or hidden motivations for Silas, and between Maclean's visuals and Fassbender's stoic action, the onscreen revelations simmer enough in Slow West. Why does Silas really help Jay? Maybe even he isn't so sure once these ideas about nicer living are presented to him instead of an on the run financial reward. Silas sits up rather than bed down to sleep, robs when he needs it, and doesn't let the toughness of the land nor its hungry and orphaned get to him. Once he travels with Jay, however, he doesn't kill when he doesn't have to, refuses whiskey, and finds some humor at Jay's expense. Silas teaching Jay how to shave with a seemingly dangerous knife actually reveals a tender trust and protective nature. He sees right through Jay from the beginning, and for all his posturing about his lawless past against Jay's happy talk, the viewer believes there may be a bit of civilized potential in Silas yet.

Likewise, Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline) is an unstable and intrusive if too brief delight as the wild but coy and appropriately named Payne. He's an outlaw with no scruples who knows more than he is saying yet his history with Silas is played wonderfully in one terse sequence. Had the film been longer, a few more spoken one on one words between the two would have been a treat, but their relationship can be surmised through the chewy performances without those narrative quips. Fellow gang member Eddie Campbell (Top of the Lake) as Skeller also provides a crusty anecdotal warning of a lawless land where the smallest emotion or mistake can inadvertently kill you. Rory McCann (Game of Thrones) is fun to see as John Ross, too, but his hardworking, warm father serves more as a necessary plot point paired down to only a few choice scenes to add bounty hunter foreshadowing and erroneous assumptions about a daughter presumed to be the wife of an older man. Again, I'm not sure we should see Caren Pistorius (Offspring) as Rose as much as we do in the unreliable flashbacks or in several brief establishing scenes. Thanks to Jay's deluded recountings to Silas, the audience has already realized the aptly named Rose isn't a glowing flower worthy of coming all this way to find. Thus, we don't need to know her location until the story is literally on her door step, where her thorns are ultimately revealed by Rose's capable pioneer ways in the excellent finale. She's a good shot, able to defend herself without Jay's help, and at last, not what he thought her to be. 

Rather than the dark, gritty realism that permeates over period pieces, starlight, night time blue hues, and very bright, crisp skyscapes give Slow West a surreal patina. For a modern city cynic who doesn't see such starfields, that apparent uber glow suggestion could be a negative, as the superb New Zealand locales look too clean, raw, and untouched to be real. However, isolated trading posts, tiny wagons, and one room cabins in the middle of nowhere represent the encroaching civilization desperate for a foothold in a vast unknown littered with fallen trees, leftover bones, perilous rainstorms, and an unyielding lawlessness. The substituting Colorado wilds aren't as immediately recognizable as say Monument Valley and the famed John Ford country filming locations from mid century westerns of old, but more importantly, if audiences didn't know Slow West was filmed in New Zealand, most viewers would not know the difference. The music in Slow West, unfortunately, feels uneven and out of place with whimsical strings contributing to the awkwardness in the flashbacks. That may be intentional, but the witty tunes do better in the sparse, sardonic scenes between Silas and Jay. It's not portrayed as sophisticated with the spoons and sugar and used negatively, but it's nice to see absinthe onscreen, if that doesn't sound too weird. A bad, envious green contrasting the wonderfully well framed, picturesque photography of Slow West – potentially poisonous mushrooms loom large in the foreground before a desperate, cowering boy, and Maclean uses his exceptional visuals as storytelling workhorses beautifully.

It is such a pity that Slow West received a limited box office release. Amid widespread acclaim, a rolling festival tour, and the strategic video on demand partnership between distributor A24 and Direct TV, I was surprised to see Slow West play locally in Philadelphia for only a blink and you miss it week. It made me want to see the elusive western all the more, but at a maximum 54 theaters in just over a month with $200,000 odd return, my wanting to see Slow West didn't help it succeed at the box office any. Though it is a sign of the new technological cinema times, this new industry approach or measure of success confuses me. Is Slow West a direct to video release and thus considered a seemingly inferior picture or is it a lauded cinema release that nonetheless flopped at the box office? Both of those old schools of thought seem negative, and Slow West should most certainly not be judged on any kind of on paper, statistical wrappings. Actually, this is one of those rare films where the picture pretty much speaks for itself. Though I do wish Pitch Black Heist and Man on a Motorcycle had been included on the Slow West blu-ray release and the deleted scenes here were rightfully cut, there is a short behind the scenes feature on the set. And hey, those gun clicks and revolver sounds are a fun little accent on the video menus.

Slow West doesn't seem like the kind of movie that everyone will like. It's simple linear story is slightly muddled by the uneven narration and spoon fed flashbacks; the titular pace and ironic subtly asks a lot of contemporary audiences unaccustomed to brooding westerns. Despite these perceived bumps in the framework or the increasing erosion of viewer attention spans, Slow West wins with its foreshadowing layers and winking character development. I could discuss this picture much further, but no spoilers are better here. The superior elements of Slow West make the audience think, and the camerawork is a stunning treat for the eye. There are no Hollywood must dos amid the poetic jokes in Slow West, and this refreshing, delightful, full length debut should be seen at least twice for full dramatic wonder.

03 August 2015

More Bava Treats!

More Mario Bava Treats!
by Kristin Battestella

More than just horror, Italian director Mario Bava took on a variety of vikings, swords, sandals, and oh yeah, scares, too!

Hercules in the Haunted World – The late Christopher Lee joins Reg Park for his second eponymous 1961 Italian adventure, this time written and directed by Our Man Bava. Although the picture is a little flat now, the pleasant village, deadly raids, strong men, and tunics immediately set the Greco-Roman mood. So what if there's no real introduction until nameless bad guys comically flee at the name Hercules. Delightful colors and murky music shape the villainous scenes with red spotlights and green glows, complimenting the orange mists and colorful Styx storms. Such older entries in the sword and sandal genre are often perceived as hokey haha or Hollywood happy, so it's interesting to have the spooky amid a psychedelic oracle and this underworld quest to save an ethereal soon to be bride. The trials and task sequences, however, are uneven – some are more drawn out while others happen too easily and some are tedious, unnecessary side tracks with seriously bad looking monsters. Fortunately, pretty ladies in need of rescue fill the 90 minutes without resorting to saucy or nudity, and it's bemusing to go along with the mythical Theseus, Persephone, and Deianira for some unexpected conflicts. Lee is of course a suspicious guardian king with ulterior motives, a sly antagonist to the Buff despite his voice being dubbed. There doesn't seem to be English subtitles, either, which would have helped with the names or nonsensical dialogue. Obviously, this is more low budget than some of the earlier American epics and made for the visuals rather than the story, but the tone remains family fanciful even when the fantasy turns dark. This is a better He-Man than the Masters of the Universe movie and a poor man's Conan the Destroyer, however that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Besides, when was the last time we had purple special effects in a film, seriously? I wish modern films would forgo the absurd muscles, ridiculous CGI, and slow motion battles in favor of this kind of Bava lighting, shadows, flair, and mythological feeling.

Mario Bava: Maestro of the Macabre – Family, friends, and filmmakers including John Carpenter, Tim Burton, Joe Dante, and John Saxon recall the stylish and ground breaking flair from the Man of the Hour in this 2000 documentary. The childhood roots, bemusing anecdotes, and Bava's early camerawork move quickly with rare photographs and movie footage before setting the scene for the visual, violent substance and pushing the erotic horror envelope to come with the likes of Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, Baron Blood, Bay of Blood, and more. The lack of Bava respect stateside and later copycat stylings are also discussed – from poor dub jobs, chopped editing, artistic compromising, and watered down releases to the Lisa and the Devil versus House of Exorcism debacle and shot for shot similarities from Friday the 13th and Alien. Bava's progressive special effects, film trickery, and metaphorical fears were precursors to the slasher genre, and his sword and sandal work, westerns, science fiction, and comedies like Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine are also given note. The time here, however, is unfortunately a little too uneven – we don't learn much about the man himself or even see Bava all that much because too much is spent on giving away great scenes from the aforementioned films. The narration is stiff, several accents and translators may be tough for some viewers to understand, and this career summary isn't anything die hard fans didn't already know. Thankfully, this hour fittingly recognizes Bava's legacy and gives some long due respect. Clip shocks and spoilers aside, this is a nice introduction in giallo education for budding scary enthusiasts.

Shock – Director Mario Bava's 1977 final film opens with a fresh start in old house – but of course, a second husband and happy family times can't compete with dangerous clutter, dusty antiques, and leftover first husband messiness. Though some kid aspects are a little annoying, the psychic tuning, ghostly possession, and scary required for this seemingly aware villa with a spooky basement, creaking doors, claustrophobic brick walls, mysterious objects, and strange occurrences is pretty heavy. Daily child's play and household accidents with glass shattering, crashing shutters, piano slams, sharp scissors, and nasty rakes take on voodoo doll precision as the deadly intentions toward our parents mount. Previous abuses and breakdowns endured, however, cloud whether this supernatural seeing and feeling is real or all in one's mind. The picture quality is somewhat flat, dark, and drab, too, which makes the production look bad or lower budget than it was. Fortunately, there is still a fine color design alongside trademark Bava styled mirrors, lighting, stairs, and shadows with ominous piano music and record players to match. Intercut editing parallels swings, a ticking metronome, and dangerous piloting while moody dreams and hazy past memories add uneasy ambiguity to the nudity, showering, Oedipal shade, icky hands, and beneath the sheets bizarre. This near forty year old familial plot seems ahead of its time and recent attempts on the theme aren't always as good. Yes, a slicing and dicing switchblade flying about is hokey, but we don't have in your face ghosts destroying the illusions here. A frenetic, stressful unraveling contributes to the final unexpected revelations, and the small cast and minimal locations do quite well with the escalating human fears and paranormal hysteria.

A Skipper for Me

Knives of the Avenger – Epic scoring, coastal pretty, Odin worship, prophecy, pillage, and vengeance set the spirit for this 1966 Bava helmed viking adventure starring Cameron Mitchell (also of Blood and Black Lace). For an hour and a half picture, things are slow to start with a lot of padded time before anything actually happens. Confusing anglicized names, uneven dubbing, and contradictory exposition make it tough to tell who is who despite a simple western designed plot. The titular slicing and violence spices up several battles, but this would be good guy defending an exiled mom – who's peasant disguise and regal secret are obvious – and her son ingratiates himself too quickly and conveniently compared to the doom and gloom introduction. Flashback battles with critical backstory should have been fully shown rather than snippet told and narrated. Naturally, this isn't the spectacle of today, but the small scale and low budget is much more hampered than usual. Guilt ridden voiceovers don't gloss over the expected but no less upsetting violence against women, and plot twists make it tough to like the supposed hero even if he is trying to rectify past wrongs. Is it meant to be endearing or quaint if a boy takes to a man who may be his father from a rape or if the queen can't recognize her masked rapist? Would she be interested in her new protector and conflicted over waiting for her husband if she knew he was her past attacker? This isn't romantic – actually, it's repulsive that her violation and point of view are treated as inconsequential plot points. It's tough to enjoy Bava's nuances in color, zooms, and camerawork for the big battle finale when the eponymous avenger is avenging the death of his family by raping another and calling it love. This could have been a sweeping, fun tale, but the story and pace are at best muddled and at worse offensive.